On June 24, 2023 I had an online learning opportunity with Gregg Goodhart. He is a learning
coach who applies cognitive science research.
I had found an online workshop on the Modacity website and signed up to view it. After signing up to be a passive participant, I received an email asking for two volunteers to be the active students. This would mean playing a small section from a piece that has been too difficult to
master over months or more of practice for this online class. I decided to volunteer, thinking I would never be selected. I was chosen to be one of the two active students. I have lots of difficult passages I work on for months, really years. What I bring to music is perseverance, thought, and grit. I struggle with many of the skills “talented musicians” have naturally like
hearing intonation and having a strong, steady internal tempo. What appealed to me about Gregg Goodhart’s approach was that he negated talent as an something innate. He believes that what we label as talent is better learning skills and can be learned by anyone.
This is a joyous growth minded view and in general I agree. I do note that people have different
starting points in skillsets within their minds. For example, my child has “perfect pitch”. She
has heard music in note names since she was old enough to remember. For her musicianship
tests on her music exams are sure marks and she plays from ear easily. Intonation comes
easily. However, this type of ear does not allow her to play double stops (two notes together
played on different strings of the violin) with perfect just intonation and she must work at this
other high-level skill. My intonation is always a weak point but playing double stops is not as
hard for me. My brain hears the different interaction that is a well-known physics phenomenon
of waves interacting, but my child does not. My illustration is designed to acknowledge that
people’s brains vary in strengths and weaknesses. It is important both as a learner and as a
teacher to understand that each of us has different learning needs and that understanding can
help contribute to more growth. My inability to hear intonation in certain ways has led me to
understand sound in other ways such as resonance and interaction between waves. Books like
“Violin Mind” (Kalinovsky, Jørgen Jensen) and “A Violinist’s Guide to Exquisite Intonation”
(Ross) have opened me to the fact that I can, with hard work, play in tune. However, without
acknowledging that my mind needs a different approach than those with perfect pitch or those
that hear and identify intervals well, I would have just given up because I was not “talented.”
My resilience led me to find more knowledge and techniques while working on building and
training my ear.
It seems that Gregg Goodhart’s teaching does not disagree with individuality but more tries to
use learning approaches that can be applied to help people with improving. He embraces that
we all can grow and be talented with the right kind of hard work. He offered techniques to
improve accuracy and playing but after the Practiclass I knew I still had to put practice in.
On the day of the Practiclass I was nervous. Playing advanced pieces is something I do but I also
always question whether I should. I never get them perfect, and I know that someone of that
mindset, like the technical violin genius Jascha Heifetz, would have ridiculed my efforts. There
is a video of him doing that for an unnamed player he listened to. This video is lauded as
showing he had a sense of humor. What I see in this video is a cruel culture of perfectionism
that is detrimental to the growth of people. Having seen this and felt it in certain adjudications
from music festivals, previous lessons with some teachers and hearing similar experiences from
friends, I am always leery to play for people. Here is the thing: I am a successful professional
with a beautiful family and life; I choose to push myself in music for my joy and because of it, I
am advancing. Therefore, I fight the fear of these types of people and continue to work on
pieces beyond me and I continue to improve. My anxiety over this new experience online with
a large audience was huge. Therefore, when I was asked to play my passage slow to start the
class and I had worked at a very specific tempo, I had the speed fuel of anxiety running through
my veins. I knew I was not likely to be capable at that moment of slow play. I work slow practice
and preach it to my kids daily, but anxiety is a tough thing to slow down!
I played my passage at tempo and did not fall totally apart. As usual with performance anxiety,
things were not as good as they could be, but I think it illustrated the worst areas. Gregg
wanted to pick a very small section to work on. He first asked me how I had worked on it. I
explained I used slow play, rhythms and then worked up to tempo. He asked me to
demonstrate my use of rhythms.
I greatly appreciate a coach that understands a student is never starting from a blank slate by
the time they are working on advanced pieces. When I teach professionally (not music), I
always determine my student’s background and experience before I go too far, because in my
world of medicine many students come with PhDs or have worked professionally in another
area before. It is inappropriate to offer basic instruction in an area to someone who is a greater
expert than the “teacher” just because you did not bother to find out about that person.
After I demonstrated how I used rhythms, Gregg discussed that rhythms to learn note passages
are great to a point. They are likely to get you 85% there but the last 15% is a killer. He then
went on to work the short passage with “desirable difficulty” in other ways for me: play in
specific numbers of note groups; play three notes forward go back two, then three forward; try
just the right hand (bow hand) separate; play the whole passage backwards. The point is to
challenge your brain and you are to supposed to make mistakes. These challenges and
mistakes help your brain to learn the notes. Becoming worse to get better. Perfect practice is
not the answer. Kind of like you must know the notes to be able to add a higher-level skill to the
situation. The term used for this process is “contextual interference.”
I am good at making mistakes so let’s try it. I am now regularly picking out tough bits of music
and trying to use contextual interference to improve them. The tough part is often finding new
ways to trick my brain. I am getting pretty good at playing backwards. However, it does help
and I just need to be creative in the desired difficulty area.
Here is an example from my child, who was preparing for a piano exam. She plays violin and
piano regularly and many other instruments just for fun. She was at the piano bench and I was
near as is often. She was complaining bitterly that one particular bar in her etude was
impossible, and she had been working on it for months. I told her to play long - short rhythm,
short-long rhythm, play 3 notes pause 2 notes 1 note repeat these groups, and play it
backwards. She then tried the passage again. She turned around and looked at me stating
“What witchcraft do you have?” Her passage was played perfectly. I smiled with the wisdom of
a great mother.
Regarding my fear of playing in front of the unknown Practiclass audience, I read the online
comments on the replay after the class. The people were so kind and supportive. The
comments were positive and reinforced that my stepping up and taking the risk was a great
choice. To those that commented thank you for understanding learning is tough and being
willing to do it is worth supporting. We need to have the attitude in our world that supports
that it is okay, even good, to try and make mistakes as long we are improving. Not that we are
ignoring our mistakes but just that they are part of a healthy process.
After the class I purchased a couple resources from Gregg’s website – “Cracking The Talent
Code” and “Stage Fright Supplement.” It was good to read more about desired difficulty and
I also found the retrieval practice section helpful. I have used interleaving many times before
but Gregg’s description for memorizing was excellent. I applied it by taking my concerto
movement, which is over 8 minutes long, and divided it into many sections. Throughout that
evening and next day, I then proceeded to retrieve each section randomly every 10 minutes or
so while I worked on my other technique and pieces. When I am not working, I tend to practice
a lot. Even when I work, I squeeze in a fair bit. This Practiclass happened the day before I was
to planning to play this piece from memory with a friend at his recital. This friend is a great
pianist who still takes lessons and he kindly accompanies me for fun. I have been working on
this piece for more than 18 months so what can I do in a day? The intense retrieval practice set
me up to play it from memory better than I have ever performed it before. I got a video and I
was proud of my performance for once!
The adult music learner’s group I am part of, had many members sign up to get the video of the
Practiclass, after the fact. These people are my supports, and they are very much people who
have the “talent” to improve because they work hard and apply different techniques to get the
most from their hard work. As adults we are often given less opportunities because we are not
likely to become professionals. Music has more important things to do than be played by only
professionals. It should be played and practiced by all who feel the call - to light our souls,
relieve our suffering, engage and grow our minds, fight aging, and improve humanity. For
people who only teach or support those that may become professionals, I say you are missing
the point. Music is more important than that.
My adult group eagerly has digested Gregg’s work and many are applying it too. Thanks to
them for supporting me to be willing to step up to this class. We all tend to read voraciously
too. The resources also provided reference books. I have read Mindset (Dweck) now, starting
on Grit (Duckworth) and I have Make It Stick (Brown) on my want to read list after that. The
adult music learners eagerly asked for all the references and will be reading too.
Thank you to Gregg Goodhart for this opportunity.